The end of “de facto states”


For years the secessionist entities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria have been refered to as “de facto states” and the conflicts around them – “frozen conflicts” (see previous posts on South Ossetia and Abkhazia). There has been a wide consensus that the term “frozen conflicts” is a misnomer. The conflicts have never been frozen, their settlement was. But the evolving realities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are making the term “de facto states” also increasingly obsolete.

Scott Pegg launched the debate on de facto states with a book published over a decade ago. He referred mainly to North Cyprus, Taiwan, Somaliland, and Tamil Eelam. Dov Lynch took the debate into the post-Soviet space with his book on the “Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States: Unresolved Conflicts and De Facto States”. The argument in both books is that secessionist regions which control a more or less well-defined territory, population and have a set of state-like institutions can be termed as “de facto states”. They are unrecognised, but de facto independent.

The truth is of course more complicated because most “de facto” states have always relied on various levels of external support to ensure their security and/or economic development (think of Taiwan, North Cyprus or Abkhazia). So the term has always been relative. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria have outsourced a large chunk of their de facto independence to Russia: their borders have been de facto guarded by Russian peacekeepers, the Russian rouble was the official currency of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Transnistria has its own currency), some functions in the de facto governments (especially in South Ossetia) have been outsourced to Russia etc. There has always a large degree of “de facto integration” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Russia which was limiting their claims of being “de facto independent”. And still they were accepted by most analysts as “de facto states”. But the Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence is accelerating the loss of their “de facto independence” if not by will, then by default.

The paradox is that until August 2008 Abkhazia and South Ossetia were unrecognised, but de facto independent; after August 2008 they became partly recognised, but not de facto independent anymore.img00221-20090605-1742 If the secessionist wars of 1992-1993 were their “wars for independence”, the August 2008 war is becoming the war that marked the loss of (their however limited) “de facto independence”. The 2008 was won by Russia, not the secessionist entities. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are quickly evolving from being “de facto states” to becoming “de facto Russian regions”. Most South Ossetians welcome that, but the Abkhaz are more ambivalent (for those who understand Russian see the photo of an article from an Abkhaz newspaper a month ago). For example a recent statement by Abkhaz opposition activists argues that “all the functions that ensure the sovereignty and independence of our state are ceded to an external party.” One can agree or nor with such a statement, but such a debate in Abkhazia is taking place. Either way, the trend towards de facto integration into Russia is near inevitable and near irreversible, for at least a couple of decades.

All the regional actors willingly or unwillingly contribute to this. Russia feels comfortable being the only gate to the world for the secessionist entities. It vetoed and expelled the OSCE mission from South Ossetia and the UN mission from Abkhazia, which will certainly contribute to their greater isolation. Georgia, at its turn, is also contributing to the greater isolation of the secessionist entities through its “law on occupied territories“. Georgian policies only increase the reliance of the secessionist entities on Russia. As for the EU, there are more and more cases of EU member states refusing visas to residents of Abkhazia. But Abkhazia and South Ossetia also contribute to their own self-isolation by refusing many international contacts for symbolic reasons (such as refusing to let the EU Monitoring Mission on their territories, or refusing to meet EU ambassadors to Georgia because they are ambassadors “to Georgia”). Such trends are hardly in the long-term interest of any of the actors in the conflict,  but they are the result of previous policy choices made by all these actors themselves.